If there is one overarching emotion that characterizes Romanticism, it's nostalgia. The Romantic hates modernity and longs for something lost, a lost age (or a lost childhood) when one did not feel so estranged, when men were men and women were women, where nobility and grace and chivalry were the rule, where the world was full of mystery and enchantments that the Romantic feels as a kind of memory but no longer possesses. This kind of nostalgia is often enough benign, but it frequently enough manifests in a kind of toxic social psychology. It links those who would fly the confederate flag longing for the Old South with the Germans who dreamed that they could be once again Teutonic warriors with Islamic mullahs who dream that a Muslim civilization may once again extend from east Asia through Europe. They long for a lost culture that in their imaginations, whatever it may have been in reality, in which people were deeper, more spiritual, more connected, more human. Romanticism is a reaction against the soul-flattening, social leveling and mechanistic materialistic rationalism that is, in the Romantic's view, the spirit of modernity.
I think that this kind of romanticism explains Bill Buckley's reactionary Catholicism and all that came with it: his hatred of communism, his defense of Franco's Spain, his defense of McCarthyism, why he supported the war in Vietnam but had no enthusiasm for Iraq. (The mullahs, after all are romantic reactionaries like him). And this longing for a lost romantic nobility distinguishes him from other red-meat, John Birch conservatives and neoconservatives on the American scene with whom he consorted but never felt comfortable. Those other conservatives are motivated by fear and powerlust; Buckley was not, his conservatism was rooted in a romantic idealism.
I think also for Buckley his playing the romantic reactionary was kind of a lark. He was deep down the trickster mocking the pretensions and hubris of the modern welfare state. He was a more sophisticated, lighter-hearted, wittier, and gentler Ann Coulter: somebody who didn't take himself and his quixotic projects that seriously. He had a lighter, cooler style and enjoyed more the jousting and the skewering of the less-nimble establishment liberals like David Susskind with whom, in my youth, he seemed eternally to be debating on his TV show. He defined himself primarily not as "for" but "against," and what he was against was communism and all of its offshoots, because communism was the modern disease par excellence, and from the spirit which animated it, all the ills of the modern age flowed. I never saw him as a corporate capitalist. His defense of capitalism was motivated not by his loving it, but by its being the opposite communism. My guess is that if he could live in an ideal political-cultural world it would be under a doge in 15th-century Florence or Venice.
I think that this important to understand because for the kind of romantic reactionary Buckley was, American liberalism was just a watered-down version of Marxism. The spirit of modern liberalism was the same as the spirit of communism-- its materialism, its naive optimism, its rejection of tradition and religion, its rational mechanistic solutions to social problems, its top-downism, its Jacobin hubris. His life's purpose was to wage war against the mindset that characterized secular liberalism which for him was a disease that eviscerated the soul and made humans into gutless, dependent, children--"men without chests," as C.S. Lewis described moderns in his Abolition of Man. This is important to understand if you're to understand the animus of Buckley's kind of conservatism against what for most sensible people seems the benign common sense of liberal welfarism. For such romantics Liberal programs are not common-sense solutions to practical social problems; they are the emanations of a spiritually crippling social disease.
And so for all of his elan, Buckley in the end was an irrelevancy. It's the problem of all reactionaries who refuse modernity rather than embrace it in order to live through it. I would contrast him with another kind of traditionalism--the kind, for instance, that the radical social critic Ivan Illich represents. Illich was a Catholic priest with deep family roots in old Europe. Anybody who knows his work knows that for him tradition was not something into which he retreated nostalgically, but was the source for his radical and energetic critique and imagination of solutions. From Cayley's Conversations with Ivan Illich:
Illich has often drawn attention to how traditional his views are and to how novel such views can seem in the context of contemporary cultural amnesia. As early as 1959 he introduced an essay called "The Vanishing Clergyman" by saying that he was not writing "anything theologically new, daring, or controversial." "Only spelling out of social consequences," he went on, "can make a thesis as orthodox as mine sufficiently controversial to be discussed." In these pages, he remarks that today "it's very difficult to speak about . . . things which seem to have been obvious and unquestioned during a thousand years of Western tradition." " I often have the impression, he says, "that the more traditionally I speak, the more radically alien I become."
No kidding. Anybody who has been reading this blog over time knows that I am sympathetic with the conservative critique of modernity while at the same time refusing conservative solutions for the problems of modernity. So I understand where Buckley is coming from, but I completely reject his politics and his imagination for a cure. People like Illich are fecund with future possibility, while Buckley's vision in the end is barren.
I wonder if Illich ever appeared on "Firing Line". That would have been a very interesting conversation.